Extermination of the Jewish Mentally-Ill during the Nazi Era - the "Doubly Cursed"

Article excerpt

Abstract: In Nazi Germany, physicians initiated a program of sterilization and euthanasia directed at the mentally-ill and physically disabled. Relatively little is known regarding the fate of the Jewish mentally-ill. Jewish mentally-ill were definitely included and targeted and were among the first who fell victim. They were systematically murdered following transfer as a specialized group, as well as killed in the general euthanasia program along with non-Jewish mentally-ill. Their murder constituted an important link between euthanasia and the Final Solution. The targeting of the Jewish mentally-ill was comprised of four processes including public assistance withdrawal, hospital treatment limitations, sterilization and murder. Jewish "patients" became indiscriminate victims not only on the basis of psychiatric diagnosis, but also on the basis of race. The killing was efficiently coordinated with assembly in collection centers prior to being transferred to their deaths. The process included deceiving Jewish patients' family members and caregivers in order to extract financial support long after patients had been killed. Jewish patients were targeted since they were helpless and considered the embodiment of evil. Since nobody stood up for the Jews, the Nazis could treat the Jewish patients as they saw fit. Several differences existed between euthanasia of Jews and non-Jews, among which the Jewish mentally-ill were killed regardless of work ability, hospitalization length or illness severity. Furthermore, there was discrimination in the process leading up to killing (overcrowding, less food). For the Nazis, Jewish mentally-ill patients were unique among victims in that they embodied both "hazardous genes" and "racial toxins." For many years there has been silence relating to the fate of the Jewish mentally-ill. This deserves to be corrected.


A mere 70 years or so ago one of the most egregious episodes in the history of medicine in general and psychiatry in particular transpired. In Nazi Germany, beginning in the early 1930s and culminating in the years during World War II, German physicians initiated and developed a program of sterilization and euthanasia directed at mentally-ill and physically disabled individuals. The law enforcing sterilization was promulgated in 1933 and written by Professor Ernst Rudin, a prominent professor of psychiatry and head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Munich. The euthanasia program commenced officially in September 1939 and consisted of the systematic killing of mentally-ill and physically disabled by gassing, injection, drug overdose and starvation. The operation was code-named T4 (reference to street address in Berlin of a confiscated Jewish villa). Six gassing installations for adults were established (Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim and Sonnenstein). It is estimated that the euthanasia program in all phases claimed 200,000 lives (reviewed in 1).

Deception Regarding the Fate of the Jewish Mentally-ill

While it is well known that euthanasia claimed the lives of so many mentally-ill and physically disabled, relatively little has been published regarding the fate of the Jewish mentally-ill and disabled within the context of this program. There are several reasons for this. Arguably the most important was the claim by Viktor Brack, the chief administrator of the Euthanasia Program, that "Jews were not granted the good fortune of euthanasia according to the state policy at the time" (2). Considering Brack's pivotal role in the euthanasia program, many historians were mislead and believed this assertion which was confirmed by Karl Brandt, another leader of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program, who declared at Nuremberg that he knew nothing about the fate of the Jewish disabled (3). However, Jews were definitely included in the "euthanasia action." Furthermore, they were among the first who fell victim. They were systematically murdered following transfer specifically as mentally-ill Jews, as well as killed in the general euthanasia program along with mentally-ill or disabled civilians of German, Polish and Austrian nationalities. …